FERNHURST, England — Europe’s newest weapon in the battle of wills with Russian President Vladimir Putin lies buried deep beneath the ancient oaks and rolling green pastures of this quintessentially English village.
There, wedged in the bedrock, lie vast quantities of oil and natural gas — enough, when combined with the spoils of hundreds of other sites like it, to help kick Europe’s addiction to Russian energy.
Or so says David Cameron.
Ever since Russian forces took hold of Crimea last month, the British prime minister has been leading a chorus of conservative politicians and energy executives in a refrain they believe will spark a shale gas revolution in Europe: Frack, baby, frack.
The push for a European boom in fracking — shorthand for hydraulic fracturing — has been underway for years, but it has taken on new urgency in recent weeks as fears grow of a revival of the Cold War. With Europe leaning on Russia for a third of its natural gas needs, the continent’s leaders say they need to develop their own energy sources — and fast.
Cameron recently said that Britain has a “duty” to frack, and he expressed frustration that it hasn’t happened here as quickly as it has in the United States. Achieving energy independence from Russia, Cameron said, needs to be “a tier-one political issue.”
But for environmentalists, the rush to frack smells of rank opportunism and seems a discouraging turn away from cleaner energy sources. It has also unnerved local landowners, who worry that the green and pleasant lands of the British countryside are about to be churned up in the name of combating the Russian menace.
“Frankly, we’re a small and densely populated island,” said Dieter Helm, who teaches energy policy at Oxford University. “It’s everything that North Dakota isn’t.”
And yet, Britain is like North Dakota in one important respect: There’s a lot of gas down there, both in the United Kingdom and over vast stretches of continental Europe.
Estimates of shale gas reserves are notoriously imprecise, but the U.S. Energy Information Administration last year placed the amount of recoverable resources in Europe at nearly 470 trillion cubic feet — an amount that could light cities from London to Warsaw for decades.
Europe’s reserves are only slightly less than those in the United States, where there are thought to be 567 trillion cubic feet and where a boom in production has sent energy prices tumbling. Europe is also believed to have large quantities of shale oil, but the continent has more options to acquire oil than it does for gas, which is more difficult to transport and store. The focus of the recent push has been on gas.
But extracting that gas is the tricky part. From a technical standpoint, hydraulic fracturing involves drilling deep beneath the Earth’s surface and injecting rock formations with enough water, sand and chemicals to force out the hydrocarbons. From a political standpoint, it means convincing authorities from the European Union on down to local planning commissions that the gains of extraction are worth the environmental cost — a challenge made all the more difficult by widespread public skepticism.
“The potential is enormous. The resource is very large in the U.K. and in Europe,” Francis Egan, chief executive of one of the major fracking firms, Cuadrilla Resources, told an audience at the London-based think tank Chatham House last week. “That’s not to say we can get it out of the ground.”
Speaking alongside Egan, Energy Minister Michael Fallon vowed to give fracking the government’s complete support. “There’s a lot more shale underneath us than we thought,” Fallon said. “It would be irresponsible not to crack on and encourage exploration wherever we can.”
But even as the national government moves full speed ahead, local authorities in Britain are far more tentative — and have kept British fracking projects from moving beyond the exploratory stage.
Environmentalists say fracking could contaminate local water supplies and even set off minor earthquakes. They say, too, that the geology of Europe is less conducive to fracking than that of the United States. “You can’t replicate the U.S. boom here,” said Rebecca Lawson, a policy adviser at the sustainable-development advocacy group E3G.
Egan said that even if all restrictions were lifted tomorrow, it would take about four years to deliver meaningful levels of shale gas production. Most analysts say a decade or more is likely. They note that the United States began investing in shale 25 years ago and only recently began reaping the rewards.
Meanwhile, many nations in Europe continue to struggle with whether to invest in shale at all.
Few places better capture the schizophrenic debate in Europe over fracking than Germany, where there’s a de facto moratorium on large-scale extraction of shale gas pending further environmental studies. With Germany importing Russian natural gas for roughly a third of its energy needs, Chancellor Angela Merkel recently raised the hopes of the pro-fracking lobby by pointedly calling for “a new look at energy policy as a whole.”
But that is easier said than done. Germany has committed to phasing out nuclear energy over the next decade, complicating any push to drastically move away from Russian gas. Indeed, just last week, Germany refrained from blocking two new energy deals involving Russian companies, including a continuing partnership between the Russian giant Gazprom and a German company, Wintershall.
Perhaps more important, the standoff with Russia over Ukraine has done almost nothing to change the mind-set of fracking’s opponents. They continue to view fracking as out of step with the “green revolution” that has brought an explosion of solar, wind, biomass and other alternative energy sources in Germany.
“This is a very emotional topic in Germany,” said Ralf Fücks, president of the Berlin-based Heinrich Böll Foundation, which is affiliated with the Green Party. “Objections to fracking go beyond the environmental movement and into the general public.”
Before looking seriously at fracking, opponents insist, the government must first consider other options, including more renewable energy projects as well as the possible build-out of vast new terminals at German ports to receive liquefied natural gas from the United States, Qatar and other suppliers.
Virtually all the alternatives would be far more expensive than continuing to import Russian gas at a time when even the green-thinking German public has begun to balk at soaring energy bills. Sensing an opening, longtime proponents say now is the time to push for fracking. Still, opposition remains fierce.
After Michael Fuchs, a lawmaker from Merkel's CDU party, recently called for Berlin to take a closer look at fracking, he said he received a barrage of vitriol on Twitter and Facebook.
“One person said I should be drowned” in the chemicals used in fracking, he said.
In Poland, where mistrust of Russia runs deep, public attitudes toward fracking are more favorable. But the country’s experience offers a cautionary tale. After four years of experimentation, Poland has little to show.
At one point, Poland was thought to harbor vast reserves of shale gas that could have met domestic energy needs for centuries. The estimates, however, have since been revised sharply downward. Several companies awarded exploration licenses — including Exxon Mobil — have abandoned the country after determining that reserves were not commercially viable.
Nonetheless, the Ukraine crisis has spurred renewed efforts in Warsaw to get fracking off the ground. Last month, Prime Minister Donald Tusk proposed a six-year moratorium on special taxes for the shale industry.
“Poland is the most gung-ho in Europe” on fracking, said Pavel Molchanov, an energy analyst at Raymond James. “But even it is at an early stage in the industry, and development is going to take time.”
In Fernhurst, the idyllic English village that has become a battleground in the fight over British fracking, many residents hope that time is on their side. But they fear the opposite — that because of the Ukraine crisis, the government is more committed than ever to allowing the energy companies to drill.
For Martyn Knights, 59, that would mean a 145-foot rig working day and night in the field just beyond his five-century-old farmhouse. He and a group of neighbors have spent thousands of pounds to try to block the project, which he says will destroy Fernhurst’s inky-black nights and bird-song-filled days with round-the-clock drilling — all for a gamble that may not bring Europe any closer to energy independence.
“There’s a great big question mark about whether it will even work,” Knights said. “I’m not convinced it will, and that it’s worth ruining an area of natural beauty to find out if it does.”
Faiola reported from Berlin. Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.